Photos by JJ Kaplan
After authoring the blueprint for football at Zionsville High School for the last 17 years, Larry McWhorter has witnessed a remarkable growth of the sport in the community.
First, there is the football stadium, a wonderful-looking brick facility perched on the northwest side of the sprawling school campus on Mulberry Street. The recently constructed stadium has become the center of the universe in Zionsville during an Indiana high school season.
Then there is the tradition that McWhorter, his coaching staff and school administrators have carved out during the McWhorter regime. Not only have the Eagles posted a 147-55 record in those 17 years, but they have also nabbed six sectional championships, two regional titles and two semi-state conquests.
Finally, Zionsville and McWhorter and Associates have refueled successfully each autumn. They regularly welcome 90-100 players each year.
Soon, though, the veteran coach will be entering a new and different world. This one presents a few daunting uncertainties, including this possibility: What if you started a new football program and no one came to the audition? “Who knows,” admitted McWhorter with a laugh, “we may only have seven or eight players. That’s probably my biggest fear.”
Okay, McWhorter believes he is only kidding when talking about his first squad at Covenant Christian in 2014. But he also recognizes that he is leaving a comfortable nest in Zionsville for the unknown world of hammering out from the ground level a football program for a private, Christian-based school of less than 350 students. Not only does Zionsville house more than 1,800 students, but the Eagles have a strong youth football program that annually restocks the community’s middle and high school systems.
In reality, McWhorter is buckled up for two challenges. One project is laying out plans for the birth of a successful football program at Covenant Christian in 2014 (junior varsity) and 2015 (varsity). The second enterprise is continuing his coaching assignment at Zionsville for the 2013 season. His 18th Eagle edition opens the season against Lafayette Jeff on August 23.
Summer workouts will turn to formal practices in early August. “This (Zionsville) is priority one,” said McWhorter before a summer workout with his team. “We are committed to achieve everything that we can achieve with this team. I don’t want anyone to think that coach Mac is not committed to this team. We definitely are committed.”
The season will be packed with the annual Hoosiers Crossroads Conference slugfests. This means featured battles include bouts with Brownsburg, Avon, Fishers, Hamilton Southeastern, Westfield and Noblesville. “Everyone seems to get better,” McWhorter said. “Every game is a conference game. It is tough.”
The next chapter will also be highlighted with difficult confrontations for McWhorter. Future foes will not include squads from Brownsburg, Fishers and Avon, but there will be numerous potholes while steering a start-up program. Ideas that sparkled on paper will now have to be executed on the field.
And, speaking of a field for the Covenant Christian team. “We’re still working on getting one,” said McWhorter.
This building process started three years ago when McWhorter volunteered to huddle with Covenant Christian officials to offer advice on starting a football program. Wife Debbie worked at the school and he had met many parents and administrators during a school mission trip to Mexico. “They were investigating what it would take to get football started at the school,” McWhorter said. “So we talked about the needs for staffing, the physical plant and the coaching standards that I would recommend.
“After a few discussions, a seed was planted in me. I thought about how enjoyable it would be to try and build a program from zero to something.”
The timing was also perfect because of a situation that the 57-year-old McWhorter faced at Zionsville. Due to contractual issue with his teaching position at the school, McWhorter would not be able to continue at the school after 2013. IHSAA and officials from both schools worked out an arrangement to share McWhorter for this season. McWhorter would continue to coach the Eagles and start putting together a staff and building plans for football at Covenant Christian. “It is a home run for us,” said Covenant Christian athletic director Andy Gossel. “Coach Mac is providing us with instant creditability. He is icing on the cake.”
McWhorter will carry his coaching style and philosophies to his new post on the Westside of Indianapolis. He learned those principles while serving as a student assistant at Franklin College. His mentor was the legendary Red Faught, who pioneered spreading the field with his run and shoot passing concepts. “The only reason I am here is because of Red Faught,” remembered McWhorter. “I was on the track team and he knew I wanted to be a coach. He saw something in me that no one else did. I got my coaching principles from him.”
Those mainstay principles – executing correct techniques and unleashing full effort – have been the trademark of McWhorter’s Eagles, who won the 3A state championship in 1996 (defeating Fort Wayne Dwenger) and finished second in 2000 (losing in overtime to Heritage Hills). “Physically, we may not always be the best team on the field,” said McWhorter, who has produced four Division I players at Zionsville. “But our team will compete on every play. We hear a lot from coaches who say that they wish their program would be like ours. That is the ultimate compliment for a coach and his players to hear.”
Gossel wants to see those traits carry over from Zionsville to his camp. “It is very exciting for us to have Coach Mac,” said Gossel, “And that is not disrespecting other candidates that we had. We had 40, 50 candidates apply and most were outstanding candidates. But coach Mac is the perfect person for us. Not only does he have solid coaching expertise, but he is passionate about mentoring kids beyond the football field. He wants to make them better people.”
The Gossel roadmap for football at his school is very similar to the one drawn up at Zionsville. He dreams of future Friday nights to be special bonding moments for the students, parents and administrators at Covenant Christian. The school attracts students from 51 different middle schools (private and public) and home schools. “We’re big on building community here,” said Gossel. “Football can build a community spirit at your school. Other athletic directors have told me that a football program is important to the identity of a school. Everyone goes to the home football game.”
However, home football games may not immediately come. A home field is still lodged in the wish phase for McWhorter and Gossel. “We may bounce around for a while,” conceded Gossel, who will gear future schedules toward 1A schools in the area.
For now, McWhorter refuses to worry about the field. Instead he is eyeing one last run at Zionsville and one big chase at Covenant Christian. “I think my dad put it best,” recalled McWhorter, who admits his final walk off the field at Zionsville may be an emotional one. “He said it would be a chance for me to re-energize myself. He told me that I would get a charge out of the change.”
But that change and charge are still on the horizon for McWhorter. He still has some business to complete at the Zionsville stadium.